The Catholics of Ulster: a history, Marianne Elliott. (Allen Lane, Penguin Press, £25) ISBN 0713994649

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

I read this book full on the heels of journalist Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: an Unsettled People, and just as avidly. Both books emanate from troubled hearts asking the question—what was this thirty-years war in Northern Ireland all about? Susan McKay’s book belongs to the present and is the testimony of Protestants from various parts of the North speaking in their own words. Marianne Elliott’s book is a long personal odyssey into history. That was a more difficult task. Armed with her own judgement, like any trembling historian, and exploring territory largely untravelled by herself before, since she  has specialised in late    eighteenth-century Irish  history, she journeyed back through time to seek an answer to her question—what formed the ‘distinctive Ulster Catholic tradition’, the forging of the link between ‘Catholicism’ and Irish nationalism, and the northern Catholics’ cult of grievance?
Obviously she examines the history of the co-existence of two substantial peoples, Protestant and Catholic, in the North. There she finds minutiae of neighbourliness, cross culture of Irish, Scots and English, and cross-conversion in religion. She relates vivid examples of these over the centuries, even in the pre-1641 Rising period, but, on the whole, she tells a sad story of separateness and sectarianism. On her way she calls many witnesses, whose evidence she must assess, and this she does well for those she chooses. It is not easy to write a general history for sources must be judged on merit; one must be careful not to argue from the particular to the general and a situation may vary from one small place to another. It is clear from her reading list and extensive notes that she has been greatly helped by scholars who in recent years have explored the Gaelic world and the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland. One thinks of the work of Katherine Simms who has written extensively on the Gaelic lordships and probed Irish classical poetry as a historical source. Elliott has availed of some of the colossal amount of source material available now on the Catholic Church provided by the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Archivium Hibernicum, Collectanea Hibernica and the northern journals, the Clogher Record and Seanchas Ard Mhacha. Much of the history she has studied for this book seems new to her. Sometimes one senses her emitting little gasps of surprise at her own discoveries. She is didactic and anxious to enlighten those who may still have a simple ‘romantic’ notion of the Irish national ideal. That gets tiresome.
This book is a social history of Catholics in Ulster, not a history of the Catholic Church, and therefore the author scrupulously avoids theology and only touches on spirituality in so far as she thinks it may reflect a people’s culture. That is a pity for spirituality is part of people’s lives and theology can explain a context, like the cult of relics, and save people of the past appearing as fools to the arrogant ‘enlightened’. Another example, the so-called ‘Cullen’ devotions of the nineteenth century need not be scorned. Some of them had already appeared in the eighteenth century, as is clear from prayer books and other little devotional literature, and they have brought forth good fruit, witness the spiritual writings of Blessed Columba Marmion in the twentieth century. A spiritual dimension would, I think, awaken a historian’s compassion for humanity, a sympathy even for fighting Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, whatever their sins and ignorance. Indeed Marianne Elliott’s book wanders ‘far from the candles of the Irish poor’. Only in places does she give a credible picture of the worm’s eye view of political and social affairs it was the fate of Catholics in the north of Ireland to endure from the Nine Years War, through Cromwell, the Boyne, 1798, the Famine, the rise of the Orange Order and partition with all its dreadful consequences of discrimination in housing, jobs and application of the law with the Special Powers Act used exclusively against Catholics.
Catholic? Why hijack the religious denominational name? Why not more use of ‘Irish’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘republican’ throughout the book to suit the context? Elliott refrains from praise of Catholic virtue or Catholic heroes. Malachy and Cellach of Armagh, giants of their day and leaders of the twelfth-century reform in the North, are not mentioned. Cromwell and Chichester, both responsible for massacres in Ireland, appear in better light than Oliver Plunkett! Yet Oliver, for all his ‘snobbery’ washed the sores of the poor sick in the hospital of Santo Spirito while he was a professor in Rome (not a common habit among university professors!) and, gentleman and all as he was, suffered deprivations for and with his poor degraded starving people for whom he gave up all his possessions; he was a reconciler, suffered an unjust trial (which has been a feature of British justice for too many Irish people in the North and in England in the past thirty years) and died heroically forgiving his enemies. His extraordinary disciplined Tridentine education enabled him to set up the structures which helped the Catholic Church survive the oppression of the penal laws in the first quarter of the eighteenth-century. And on the subject of the penal laws, although we have learned from Maureen Wall and Patrick Corish not to view them by the letter of the statute book, Elliott creates a new myth by undertoning the suffering they caused.
On the notion of odyssey I travelled chapter by chapter back with her through the ages. Strangely, though the last two chapters may be reckoned as the spur of her research, they appear to be written from a distance of place and time. They are non-professional, journalistic and seem to have been written in a hurry. Her lack of true touch in them may be due to physical absence during the recent war, for which her brief experience of the Opsahl commission can hardly compensate. Thankfully, she concludes that the grievance culture this book features is over. She has noticed the new confidence and enterprise among the nationalists of the North and indicates that shared power is the real solution to an age-old problem. Indeed it is a theme of her book that Catholics, since the seventeenth century, have always sought an accommodation if they were offered fair play.
There are unexplained omissions in the last two chapters and a lack of balance. She almost completely ignores the role of the British government in London, who, after all, did rule the area from 1601 to 1922, then through Stormont, and from 1972 to 1998 exercised direct rule. There is no analysis of the tactics of Wilson, Heath or Thatcher, no probing into the state papers or the diaries of prominent politicians who ruled in Northern Ireland. Neither William Whitelaw nor Roy Mason are mentioned. Was the Catholic Church to blame for division, bigotry, violence when the evidence shows that the Catholics were the victims of their rulers and some were driven into adopting violence by many illegal and terrorist actions of the government forces who were convicted of such actions by Amnesty International three times and by the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights? This book fails to underline strongly the helplessness of the Catholic people in the North from 1921 to 2000. The Orange Order’s continual important role, and especially in the Drumcree problem, is largely ignored. I think the work and vision of John Hume and Gerry Adams in devising the ‘Peace Process’ should have been included, as also the external influences of the European Union and the USA in bringing about social changes. The context she gives of the hunger strikes is patchy. No mention of the horrific punishments imposed on them for their protest which were rightly condemned by Cardinal Ó Fiaich. The long sustained murderous campaign of the UDA and the modern UVF is not mentioned and the serious state terror of collusion and murder is not roundly condemned. To hear relatives describe the RUC murders of Patrick Rooney (aged nine years), Anthony McCabe and Samuel McLarnon on the night of 14 August 1969 is to find the author’s description of those events disappointing.
Her account of Bloody Sunday shocked me: ‘Although, as I write, there is yet another public inquiry under way to establish exactly what happened on that day, it looks as if the soldiers may have over-reacted to the taunts and missiles of a youthful Catholic crowd and shot dead fourteen unarmed civilians’. I thought that soft tone also underplayed her relation of the terror and atrocities of conquest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Chichester, for example, was ruthless in his massacre of the innocent: ‘We have burnt and destroyed along the lough, even within four miles of Dungannon, where we killed man, woman, child, horse, beast, and whatsoever we found’. Colonisation is adorned with a morality and legality it hardly deserves and the powerless conquered, struggling to make the best of a bad situation, struggling to practise their religion, are classed ‘rebels’ when they revolt. Is there not a smack of the argument of empire in the book? I think that the peasantry willingly aided the lesser Irish nobility in the 1641 Rising and I am not convinced of the apparent contentment of brehons, poets and ‘churls’ under their new British rulers. And now a quirk, the use of the term ‘British Isles’ is neither historically nor geographically correct. And a few corrections—Dean Brian Mac Gurk was not a Franciscan nor was Tadhg Dall Ó Huiginn from west Ulster. The fateful day of internment was 9 August 1971 not 9 August 1970—a date burned into the memories of Northern Irish nationalists.
A lot more has yet to be written on the Famine, on the cruelty of government, landlords and the opulent tenant farmers. I would not blame John Mitchel for his ‘typically melodramatic language’. He lived in the Famine times, he cared passionately about the poor, and he used his powerful command of English to fight their cause. Pity there had not been more like him! Aside from the sketch of the Famine in this book, Liam Swords has recently made an excellent contribution to an understanding of the Famine in North Connacht by letting witnesses speak for themselves. It is clear that many Catholic and Anglican clergy and Quakers did sterling charitable work. Christine Kinealy and Gerard Mac Atasney are similarly opening up our eyes to the Famine in the North, particularly in Belfast, and are adding to our knowledge of the blight of proselytism. There has been progress too on the study of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, beyond the pioneering work of Emmet Larkin and E.R. Norman, notably by Donal Kerr, Ambrose Macaulay, Ignatius Murphy and Thomas McGrath. A study of the frequency of the ‘Stations’ in many areas, a daily routine then with some priests, will throw further light on the closeness of the people to the Mass and sacraments in the early nineteenth century, even when they did not frequent Mass gardens and tiny churches on Sundays. The purity of doctrine in Paidreacha na nDaoine and the nobility of the Gaelic mind that comes across in literature in Irish of the first quarter of the twentieth century, and which reflects aspects of the nineteenth century, are, I might say, a better guide to Catholic faith than poor Linda-May Ballard’s ‘fairies’.
It was a good idea to include the pre-Reformation chapters as a preface to the theme of ‘Ulster Catholics’.  The writing on the Gaelic lordships and the explanation of the complex holding of land is interesting and helpful.  The account of the Church in those chapters, however,  I find laconic and inadequate.
Elliott does not enter deeply into the subject of Irish culture and recalls no joy in its recreations, music, folklore and literature.  Irish history in schools was forbidden by the northern state until direct rule.  Some Catholics were fortunate to have Brothers and Sisters teach them Irish history outside the curriculum.  The author attacks the Catholic school system calling it ‘segregated’ education.  She does not appear to understand the deep faith of the people of this religion and their determination to pass it on to their children.  The Catholic schools in France and Germany are called ‘Confessional Schools’ which mean schools of conscience.  Instead of sniggering at their sacrifice, surely the Catholics of Northern Ireland are to be praised for showing their strength of conscience by their contributions to their schools from the little money they had.  The quality of the teaching of Catholic schools in secular subjects must have been very good.  Catholics now abound in the universities.  They have achieved liberty by Catholic education in fifty years– that is something to commemorate.  The schools have produced men and women ready to play their part in ruling and managing their own affairs in co-operation with persons of other religions and none.
One must congratulate this brave heart for her dedication and industry. She has added a third lively book to her life’s work.  However, it was too big a task for one person. One has to balance its modern element with Eamon Phoenix’s Northern Nationalism and Jonathon Bardon’s A History of Ulster. She has raised a debate as to who and what ‘Ulster Catholics’ are. It is good for people in the North to tear off the bandages and examine the question. It may help the wounds heal.

Raymond Murray


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